LEXINGTON, Ky. — The SIU men's basketball team's first trip to Rupp Arena comes with big challenges, including No. 2 Kentucky's size, the fact the Wildcats lost by about 100 Tuesday night, and the Salukis' tradition for slow starts in big games.
SIU also has a lot to bring to its season opener. Here are three things to watch in tonight's game:
No. 1 — Kavion Pippen against Kentucky's frontline
The Wildcats (0-1) blocked five shots in their loss to fourth-ranked Duke Tuesday night, but one of their expected stars played only 13 minutes. Nick Richards, a 6-foot-11, 244-pound sophomore forward, battled three personal fouls and three turnovers in a short premiere.
SIU center Kavion Pippen will have his hands full trying to shoot over Richards, the 6-8 Reid Travis and 6-10 E.J. Montgomery, but has also been preparing for tonight's contest for weeks. Saluki coach Barry Hinson attached a few rakes from Lowe's to the rim to simulate shooting over that kind of height. Pippen needs to do his best to go around his defenders instead of over them, but if Kentucky plays him from behind, he'll have no choice.
No. 2 — The Big Blue Wave
SIU didn't have Thik Bol, point guard Marcus Bartley or guard/forward Armon Fletcher at full strength when it went down to 18th-ranked Louisville and lost by 42 points. The Salukis started slow, trailing by double digits early, and want to avoid a repeat in what could be a big beginning to the 2018-19 season.
With six seniors, and five returning starters from last season's 20-13 squad, the Salukis should show some resolve tonight, and this season, but Kentucky will present a different environment. Rupp Arena seats 23,000, and the Big Blue Nation helped Kentucky lead the nation in average attendance last season. The crowd will be something different. SIU must withstand the opening five minutes and get its feet set before the Wildcats try to bury them early.
No. 3 — SIU as a defensive team
Hinson spoke about a different defensive system earlier this offseason, but declined to give many details. Guard Aaron Cook said the Salukis would try to make opponents take contested shots and play a more pack-line defense this season. With the return of Bol, the team's leading shot blocker in 2016-17, SIU has a lot of defensive options.
The Salukis should be a great zone team with their size at the guard spot. Cook (who should have made the Missouri Valley Conference's All-Defensive Team) and Sean Lloyd, who did make the team, give SIU some tough, long guards. Bartley, at 6-5, gives them another one. Look for the Salukis to play to stop the dribble drive and rebound like hell.
Kentucky's size in the middle, with the 238-pound Travis, will be a big challenge. Richards and Montgomery, not to mention sophomore forward P.J. Washington, a preseason first team all-conference pick, allows the Wildcats to play big and long whenever they want. SIU allowed 69.1 points per game last season. Opponents shot 43.8 percent from the field.